The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles L. Brieant, U.S.D.J.
Before the Court in this prisoner civil rights case, filed as a class action, is a motion to dismiss the Complaint (Doc. Nos. 8, 9) filed on April 28, 2006. Opposition papers were filed May 25, 2006 and reply papers were filed June 9, 2006. Oral argument was held on June 16, 2006. No motion for class certification has yet been filed, but for ease of reference the Court may hereinafter refer to the case as a class action.
Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are assumed true for purposes of this motion only. The ten named individual Plaintiffs sue on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated for violations of due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, and for violations of the ex post facto clause. They argue that they have been denied full, fair and balanced parole hearings as required to be conducted pursuant to the provisions of New York State Executive Law §259-1, and as a result have been subjected to unconstitutional enhancements of their sentences. All of the named plaintiffs were convicted of second degree murder by trial or plea, and several have additional crimes attached to their record.
Defendant Governor Pataki is being sued in his official capacity only. Defendant New York State Division of Parole is a 19-member Board of Parole with statutory responsibility for determining whether parole-eligible prisoners will be released. Defendant Robert Dennison was confirmed in June of 2000, as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the New York Division of Parole, and is sued only in his official capacity.
In the last several years during the tenure of Governor George E. Pataki, there has been commentary and speculation on what is perceived by some to be a sudden sharp curtailing of the number of parole grants for entire classes of otherwise eligible offenders. This statistically apparent policy change is perceived to be based on the fact that they have committed crimes of great violence such as murder. Certain state court judges and panel scholars have remarked on what they consider to be an undeniable inference that something has changed within the Parole Board, with respect to crimes of great violence while the statutory bases for the exercise of its discretion, common to all cases, remains unchanged.
In this action, Plaintiffs allege that since 1995, the "Board of Parole has been issuing parole determinations pursuant to an unofficial policy of denying parole release to prisoners convicted of A-1 violent felony offenses, solely on the basis of the violent nature of such offenses and thus without proper consideration to any other relevant or statutorily mandated factor." First Amended Complaint ("Complaint") at ¶ 31. Plaintiffs allege that the "unofficial policy of the Parole Board was instigated by [Governor] Pataki and has been implemented and executed by the Division of Parole under Parole Chairman Robert Dennison," contrary to and in violation of New York State Executive Law §259-I, which provides that several enumerated factors must all be considered in deciding whether to grant parole in a specific case. These include, but are not limited to the seriousness of the offense, the type of sentence, the length of sentence, the pattern of offenses, the inmate's institutional record, including program goals and accomplishments, academic achievements, therapy and interpersonal relationships with staff and inmates. Complaint at ¶¶ 32,33. Plaintiffs contend that the unofficial policy allegedly executed by the Parole Board is "in conflict with, and completely ignores the rehabilitative goals embodied in the provisions of the N.Y.S. Executive Law and Penal Law and contravenes the discretionary scheme mandated by these statutes." Complaint at ¶ 36.
Plaintiffs contend that the Defendants' "unofficial policy precludes and/or substantially curtails the Parole Board's full and meaningful consideration of the statutorily mandated factors," and that the Parole Board bases its parole decisions for prisoners serving sentences for A-1 violent felonies upon impermissible factors. Complaint at ¶ 3. Plaintiffs allege that this unofficial policy has resulted in denials of parole that have been arbitrary and capricious and speculate that obtaining grants of federal money has been one of the motives for effecting a plunging parole release rate for violent criminals. See Oppo. Memo at 2-4. They cite to statistics illustrating that there has been a significant decline since 1995 in parole releases for prisoners serving sentences for A-1 violent offenses. Attached to the Complaint are summaries of the Parole Board Interviews and Release Rates for Fiscal Year ("FY") 1991-1992 through 2002-2003, the Board decisions by Summary Crime Categories for 1992-1993 through 2002-2003, and the Board decisions by Crime of Commitment for FY 1991-1992 through 2002-2003. Complaint at Ex. A. Plaintiffs also refer to recent attention brought to this subject in an article in the New York Law Journal in which it was reported that the percentage of A-1 violent felons paroled each year had fallen from a high of 28% under Governor Cuomo to 3% in 2004-2005 under Governor Pataki. Oppo. Memo at 2, citing to 'Dismantling Parole: Parole Release Rates Plunge Under Pataki's Tough Policy," New York Law Journal, January 31, 2006.
Plaintiffs contend that such a policy exists and has led to unequal treatment of prisoners convicted of A-1 violent felony offenses as compared to prisoners who are not serving sentences for such offenses, "in that the single criterion - the nature of the present offense - is all that is being given weight or consideration in the Board's determinations as to whether prisoners convicted of A-1 violent felony offenses will be granted parole release, while due consideration is being given to other statutory criteria in determining whether other prisoners not so convicted will be granted parole release." Complaint at ¶ 37.
Plaintiffs contend that the execution of this policy has also led to violations of their due process rights, because as a result of this policy, the denials of the parole release to class members "have been and continue to be arbitrary and capricious, based upon impermissible political and economic" reasons. They argue that execution of the policy of denying them parole without proper consideration of all relevant statutory factors constitutes unauthorized action in violation of Plaintiffs' rights to due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Complaint at ¶ 38.
Plaintiffs finally assert violations of the ex post facto clause, asserting that the Parole Board's policy has "brought about an ex post facto enhancement of the punishments imposed upon the named plaintiffs and members of the prospective class at their respective sentencings and thereby violates U.S. Const. Art. 1, §10, cl. 1." Complaint at ¶ 39.
Plaintiffs acknowledge, as they must, that there have been numerous similar recent challenges in the New York State Supreme Courts through Article 78 proceedings and in the federal courts through §1983 proceedings, in which it has been argued that the Parole Board has been dismantling parole, in refusing to give meaningful and balanced consideration to the various factors required by law and by giving undue weight to the violent nature of prisoners' crimes. They distinguish this class action as focusing their challenge "not just on their own individual parole determinations, but on the unlawful manner in which the Pataki Parole Board is issuing adverse parole determinations on a class-wide basis," and thereby failing to exercise its discretion. Oppo. Memo at 5. They argue that the Board has instead been "carrying out an Executive agenda, which calls for the elimination of parole for practically all A-1 violent felons." Oppo. Memo at 6.
Defendants move to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim of violations of due process, equal protection and the ex post facto clause, contending, inter alia, that there exists no such policy to deny parole outright to A-1 violent offenders and that Plaintiffs ignore the fact that their sentences involve a maximum sentence range of life imprisonment.
Proposed Class & Subclass
Plaintiffs submit that members of the class are estimated to be in the thousands and are therefore so numerous to render joinder impracticable. The named Plaintiffs seek to represent a class comprised of all prisoners in the custody of the New York State Department of Correctional Services who:
1) were convicted of A-1 violent felony offenses;
2) have served the minimum terms of their indeterminate sentences and are therefore eligible for parole release; and
3) have had their most recent applications for parole release denied by the Parole Board solely because of the "seriousness of the offense," the "nature of the present offense," or words to that effect, and in some cases, their prior criminal history.
Nine out of the ten named Plaintiffs (not Plaintiff Friedgood), also seek to represent a sub-class of prisoners who meet the same defining factors of the main class as set forth above, but who were also sentenced to less than the statutory maximum term of imprisonment - 25 years to life - for their violent offenses.
The proposed class period for the class and subclass commences three years before the date the action was filed. The case was filed January 23, 2006, therefore the proposed class period begins January 23, 2003, and extends "until such date when the defendants are enjoined from, or otherwise cease, the unconstitutional manner in which the Parole Board is denying parole release to the plaintiffs and members of the proposed class and/or subclass."
At the outset, the Court will address Defendants' suggestion that this Court should abstain from deciding this issue under Pullman for purposes of comity, federalism, and New York's separation of powers, and under Younger, for Plaintiffs Walker and Friedman, each of whom, they argue, has the same claims pending in state court.
Abstention under the Pullman doctrine may be appropriate when three conditions are met: (1) an unclear state statute is at issue; (2) resolution of the federal constitutional issue depends on the interpretation of the state law; and (3) the law is susceptible "to an interpretation by a state court that would avoid or modify the federal constitutional issue." Greater New York Metro. Food Council v. McGuire, 6 F.3d 75, 77 (2d Cir. 1993) (per curiam). Satisfaction of all three criteria does not automatically require abstention, however. "The doctrine of abstention . . . is an extraordinary and narrow exception to the duty of a District Court to adjudicate a controversy properly before it."
Vermont Right to Life Comm. v. Sorrell, 221 F.3d 376, 385 (2d Cir. 2000).
Plaintiffs oppose abstention, arguing that there is no unclear state statute involved, as the plain meaning of New York Executive Law §259-I and New York Penal Law §70.00 is not in dispute, and that sensitive issues of federalism are not involved. The Court recognizes that the issue presented is an extremely sensitive one. Human liberty interests are implicated, counter-balanced by societal interests in punishment and prevention of violent crime, as well as state separation of powers principles. The Court nevertheless declines to abstain, as the state law is not, in this Court's view, unclear and the extraordinary recourse of abstention is not necessary. Insofar as concerns Younger abstention, it would apply only to two of the named plaintiffs, so the Court declines to consider that issue at this stage of the litigation.
In considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court is obliged to accept the well-pleaded assertions of fact in the complaint as true and to draw all reasonable inferences and resolve doubts in favor of the non-moving party. See Kaluczky v. City of White Plains, 57 F.3d 202, 206 (2d Cir. 1995). The focus of the Court's inquiry is not whether plaintiffs will ultimately prevail, but whether the plaintiffs are entitled to an opportunity to offer evidence in support of their claims. Therefore a motion to dismiss must be denied unless it appears beyond doubt that the ...